He’s deadpan, y’see, and the only problem with deadpan is that it can quickly become a mask that dehumanises the performer entirely. Tonight we felt the resultant disproportionate pressure to somehow imagine that our laughter is in any way important to the performer and performance. Though his rousing songs provided a strategic punctuation to the sarcastic gloom, what is lacking here is a little genuine self-effacement. Yes, he is self-critical, and lampoons his status as a performer to great effect, but this is all composed and delivered with the sense that comedy doesn’t really make him happy; that what matters is artifice and irony, not the hilarity of reality.
That said, Burnham is an incredibly talented performer and, however laboured its composition, the material is magnificent. The puns and similes are as vicious as they are clever, and his lateral thinking works powerfully to bring the ludicrous and sensitive together onto one surreal and humbling level.
But do we laugh? Not all that much, because deadpan doesn’t necessarily mean slow-paced, and the power of Burnham’s wordplay is often lost in the blur of music, idiom shifts and blunt one-liners. Though I’m aware that this is conscious misdirection to keep us on our toes, the only way this comic could improve his act is by slowing down and showing us that he’s enjoying what he does as much as we are.